Rethinking cancer care: a system strategy for improved outcomes


Boosting early detection and reducing backlogs through data-backed, collaborative initiatives will be crucial to addressing the deteriorating state of cancer care in the UK, write Edge Health’s Lucia De Santis and George Batchelor.

In the battle against cancer, the UK is grappling with alarming statistics, with outcomes for colon, lung and pancreatic cancers being particularly sobering. According to the Comparator report on cancer in Europe 2019, the UK was last out of all Western European nations for 5-year survival of colon cancer, as well as among International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership (ICBP) jurisdiction countries (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Age-standardised incidence, mortality rates and 5-year net survival for Colon cancer. Arnold M, Rutherford M, Lam F, Bray F, Ervik M, Soerjomataram I (2019). ICBP SURVMARK-2 online tool: International Cancer Survival Benchmarking. Lyon, France: International Agency for Research on Cancer. Available from:, accessed [08/06/2023]. (Click to enlarge)

The complex factors behind the UK’s cancer outcomes

Understanding the root of this crisis is not straightforward, as many intertwined factors play roles, from cultural attitudes affecting help-seeking behaviours to underinvestment in critical medical resources. As a doctor in a busy acute trust, I could not grasp why one of my patients only presented to hospital long after his skin tone had turned an unmistakable dark shade of yellow, a tale-telling sign of his late-stage lymphoma. On the other hand, as of 2021, the NHS operated with around 63 decade-old LINACs (essential cancer treatment machines), and the UK has the lowest number of PET-CT scanners per 100,000 people among International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership countries.

The UK’s uphill struggle is deep-seated, with it having the worst cancer survival rates in the EU as far back as 1995. NHS’s low spending on cancer treatments and restricted access to cancer medicines for patients have been contributing factors.

Turning the tide: a dual-pronged strategy

Despite the complexity, there are attainable starting points for improvements: boosting early detection through the two-week-wait (2WW) referral pathway and ensuring prompt diagnosis and treatment through collaborative approaches that have proven successful in other countries.

Front one: boosting early detection

Data shows that cancers identified via a 2WW referral are often diagnosed earlier, and result in fewer diagnoses during emergency admissions, with implications for survival.

Analysis on stage at diagnosis performed by Cancer Research UK (Figure 2) demonstrates this clearly, with 30 per cent of cancers detected via 2WW referral being at Stage 1, versus just 8 per cent of cancers detected through an emergency presentation to hospital.

Figure 2: Proportion of cancers by stage at diagnosis by route of detection. Source: Cancer Research UK Early Diagnosis data, accessed June 2023. (Click to enlarge)

However, across England, there is a glaring disparity in cancer detection rates – that is, the number of confirmed cancers that are detected via an urgent suspected cancer referral (2WW). This is intimately related to the overall volume of 2WW referrals (Figure 3), where higher figures are associated with a higher detection rate.

Figure 2: Proportion of cancers by stage at diagnosis by route of detection. Source: Cancer Research UK Early Diagnosis data, accessed June 2023. (Click to enlarge)

Patients whose practices have a lower threshold to refer under the 2WW programme fare much higher chances to have cancer detected via this route and as shown above, at an earlier stage. This, again, has implications for treatment and survival.

The national disparity between these practices not only means that average figures for cancer outcomes are affected by differing primary care strategies, but also that there are wide inequalities of care across the nation.

Cancer alliances and primary care networks can play an essential role in encouraging practices to revisit their referral behaviours. This effort can help reduce healthcare inequalities and potentially save lives by identifying and treating cancer earlier. Understanding what drives referral rates and promoting effective referral practices can make the difference between a life saved and one lost, and in the end spare the much higher healthcare and societal costs associated with late-stage cancer.

Front two: tackling backlogs through collaboration

Our second strategy is to reduce backlogs through collaboration. The NHS’s diagnostic capacity is currently strained, as the steady decline in patients diagnosed within the 28-Day target since its 2021 introduction suggests.

Figure 4: Proportion of patients referred for suspected cancer who meet the 28-Day faster diagnosis standard that was introduced in 2021. (Click to enlarge)

Taking cues from countries like Denmark, which successfully improved cancer survival rates by centralising specialised care and launching data-focused initiatives, the NHS can rethink its approach. By making comprehensive cancer patient data centrally available, we can make more informed decisions, improve workflow, and direct finances more effectively.

The NHS collects extensive data on cancer patients, encompassing their entire journey from referral to treatment. The key to better cancer care is ensuring the data is available centrally to key organisations and decision-makers, such as integrated care systems and Cancer Alliance leaders, to make evidence-backed financial, workflow and population health decisions and foster collaboration.

Sharing cancer data can help speed up diagnosis and treatment for patients. For instance, by sharing a cancer patient tracking list (PTL) across multiple trusts, patients who are at risk of breaching targets can be identified early and receive timely care. This strategy can also address the shortage of diagnostic appliances or services and specialised treatment.

Figure 5: Example of how cancer alliance PTL data could be pooled to estimate breach risk scores and inform waiting lists to either allow local prioritisation or highlight mutual aid opportunities. (Click to enlarge)

The road ahead: data-driven initiatives and collaboration

The current state of cancer care in the UK calls for an urgent, systemic response. By prioritising early detection and fostering data-driven collaboration, we can significantly enhance the prognosis for the UK’s cancer patients.

Expediting early detection efforts, particularly through increased 2WW referrals, is crucial to change the narrative. These efforts, when paired with the power of collaborative and data-driven care models, can revolutionise the cancer care landscape. It’s a potent combination that can help us ensure that no matter where patients live, they can access timely and high-quality cancer care. This system-wide approach presents an opportunity not just to catch up with our European neighbours, but to potentially lead the world in effective cancer care.

Acute Care, Edge Health, News

Elective backlog and care priorities: a call for localised solutions


Edge Health’s George Batchelor and Lucia De Santis explain the need to develop localised solutions to drive the NHS’s elective care recovery.

March 2020 marked an unprecedented change in the NHS and healthcare provision. As resources were diverted to the pandemic response, virtually all elective activity ceased, and the healthcare system transformed into a huge acute response machinery. We knew this would not be a sacrifice without consequences, but it was worthy of the stakes at play – millions of lives affected by COVID-19.

Fast-forward three years: the pandemic is now over for many people, but its impact on the NHS remains. This impact goes beyond the ever-growing elective backlog to include a fundamental shift in how care is provided, as well as a host of top-down targets that place increasing challenges on care providers.

The state of the elective recovery

Many will be familiar with the dire state of waiting lists for consultant-led elective care that topped 7.2m in October 2022 – a 64 per cent increase from March 2020 and with a median waiting time of 102 days.

Amid efforts to tackle the backlog, the recovery strategy has pushed for “doing more” with an ever-increasing range of performance measures to drive increased throughput and avoid adverse incentives, including: achieving zero 65-week waits by March 2024, increasing completed pathways by 110 per cent, increasing valued activity by 104 per cent, performing all diagnostic tests within 6 weeks, and several more.

Competing targets can be confusing to navigate and add pressures to already stretched systems, but they also fail to account for novel care challenges and regional variation. Working closely with trusts and ICBs, Edge Health has encountered, again and again, a stark increase in patient complexity since the pandemic and the consequences of a depleted, exhausted workforce that don’t show up in figures and targets.

Click to enlarge image.

To add to this, Covid has also prompted a greater focus on prioritisation and clinical urgency in allocating care, as opposed to a first come, first served system, which poses added challenges in correctly allocating services when some patients have been on a waiting list for more than two years.

How targets fuel a new hierarchy of care: emergencies, long-waiters, then everyone else

Despite the impressive efforts and successes of restoring elective activity after the pandemic, as well as the rise of innovative ways to provide care and promote collaboration among providers, we are still far from having room to breathe. In this context of significant mismatch between demand and capacity, the limitations of national targets that would encourage efficient management in a balanced system are laid bare.

A pertinent example of this is elective waiting lists, which have been the object of various targets to reduce long waits. The good intentions behind these targets are undeniable; no one should be made to wait for care for more than a year. In a system where demand is matched with capacity, such long waits should never be an issue. In principle, a sudden surge in capacity directed at these long waiters might be enough – at least for some trusts – to clear them. However, this is problematic for two key reasons: it fails to account for clinical urgency and the resources that must be reserved for the sickest patients, and it directs disproportionate energy to 2 per cent of the waiting list.

Previous experience shows that initiatives to address targets are incredibly energy-consuming for trusts. They may also fail to gain buy-in when they don’t match local clinical priorities. What we have seen at large trusts is that the backlog of elective diagnostics does not stand a chance in front of the volume of emergency and two-week-wait cancer referrals. As patients approach waiting targets, however, they are pushed to the front of the queue to avoid missing them. This is not solving the backlog issue – it merely adds another pressure point.

Click to enlarge image.

Perhaps more throughput-focused national targets, such as setting a maximum number of waiting-list per head of population, would be more effective while allowing trusts to decide how to manage their own waiting lists.

ICBs create an opportunity to focus on local priorities

If there is one thing that the pandemic has demonstrated about the NHS, it is that when empowered, trusts and local systems are pioneers of innovation and can rise to unprecedented challenges. From the London Ambulance Service, which partnered with the London Fire Brigade to deal with rising ambulance demand, to the Royal Surrey NHS Foundation Trust that partnered with a local private hospital to provide excellent palliative care despite the pandemic (NHS Providers, 2020), the pandemic bore witness to numerous examples of unparalleled collaboration and innovation.

There is an inevitability about some targets in that they reflect national priorities and are a way of tracking progress and holding systems to account. There is some evidence to suggest they motivate change and can be a catalyst for improvement. But the flipside is that blanket targets don’t take into account local need and they penalise providers that are otherwise making huge progress on elective recovery. They’re also not particularly good at motivating staff in a positive way—health and care professionals understand that targets are organisationally important, but they’re not always aligned with what professionals and patients think is important. If ICBs are to be held accountable for delivering on targets, it only seems fair that they should have a say in what the targets might be and it can be expected that priorities might change from one locality to another.

This should not be seen as a limitation, but as an opportunity. We think ICBs are the key for a more nuanced approach to designing and setting priorities that might catch two (or more!) birds with one stone: managing the elective backlog and addressing local need with highly relevant targets.

ICBs could set their own targets, that are in line with national priorities but refined to fit local circumstances. Local systems could engage their workforce and patient voices in agreeing what these look like. This approach still creates accountability and sets a direction for change (the point of targets) but also gets buy-in from the teams charged with meeting the targets—targets that reflect their priorities and what they see in their own practice.

It doesn’t have to mean a free-for-all or ducking difficult problems. National bodies can still ensure local systems are ambitious, hold them to account, and provide support and guidance to deliver change. Programmes such as GIRFT do this very successfully. Instead, what we propose would allow local systems to have more freedom to invest in novel care strategies to tackle their unique challenges. Importantly, it could be a mechanism to engage with, value and retain the workforce.

Of course, the counter is that differences will emerge across localities. But the truth is that this is the current reality, demonstrated by the charts above. And those differences would likely start to narrow if – and this is critical – ICBs are given time to flourish, work to meet local priorities and learn from one another.

About the authors

George Bachelor is Co-Founder and Director of Edge Health s

Lucia De Santis is a qualified medical doctor and Analyst at Edge Health, providing

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